Choke points

On ‘Black Friday’ (26.11), activists from Extinction Rebellion targeted the Amazon distribution centre at Tilbury. This was just one of the many Amazon sites they targeted. They blocked the HGV and staff entrances to the site which resulted in congestion in the surrounding areas. This had a knock on effect on the nearby docks as well as the trading estate on the other side of the roundabout which includes an ASDA supermarket. This is how the Extinction Rebellion action was reported in the local media: Extinction Rebellion protest in Tilbury as group targets Amazon for its negative impact on the climate.

Extinction Rebellion issued a statement saying “Black Friday exploits people and planet.” As well as highlighting the environmental impact of Amazon’s operations, they also cited the poor working conditions as a justification for the action. Since the Tilbury distribution centre opened, there have been 178 ambulance call outs to the site. That really should be ringing alarm bells.

This comes in the wake of a number of actions by Insulate Britain which involved road blockings around the M25/A13 junction. This is what we had to say about those actions: Some thoughts on direct action – October 15, 2021. The key difference between the actions by Insulate Britain on the one hand and Extinction Rebellion on the other is targeting. Blocking roads to demand a comprehensive home insulation programme just didn’t add up for a lot of people out here who as well as being annoyed, were pretty baffled as well. However, whether or not you agree with the aims and tactics of Extinction Rebellion, there is at least a clear linkage between the issues at stake and the target. Sure, a fair few locals may well be pissed off about being inconvenienced but at least they can see why the Amazon distribution centre at Tilbury was targeted even if they disagree with it.

If people hadn’t realised how much of a strategic hub Thurrock is, after the actions by Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion, they certainly do now! There are the wharves at Purfleet, Tilbury docks, Tilbury 2 and the biggest of the lot, the superport at London Gateway. There are also a number of fuel storage and processing facilities along the river. Amazon are far from the only major distribution depot in the area – Thurrock is logistics central. Then there’s the Dartford River Crossing (two tunnels and a bridge) and both the M25 and A13. So far, all we’ve seen are actions that have mainly focused on one issue. Should there ever be a linking of struggles that takes in the workers in the distribution sector, then there is the potential for some pretty serious disruption.

Amazon operate on the basis of economy of scale. Their distribution centres are massive holding an almost inconceivable range of goods. As at many of their locations, their Tilbury facility dominates the landscape. The scale of the operation results in a workplace that is de-humanising. Amazon put in quite a bit of effort around Thurrock to try and present a friendly, positive face, but you only have to scratch beneath the surface and the harsher reality is there for all to see. These are a couple of pieces from the now archived South Essex Heckler looking at working conditions at Amazon: Dark, Satanic warehouses… – October 23, 2019 and: Welcome to the dark Satanic mills of the 21st century – December 7, 2018. There’s this as well from Angry Workers: Strikes against Amazon – is something finally happening? – 14 Jul 2021.

Given the massive centralisation of retail that Amazon represents, co-ordinated action by workers across their sites would be massively disruptive. They and many other corporations who have gone for big distribution centres have unwittingly created their own choke points. Through their own hubris and arrogance, they’ve created traps for themselves which could potentially sow the seeds of their downfall.

It’s the workers in these facilities who kept on slogging away through all of the lockdowns and restrictions. A fair bit of that slog was to keep the work from home brigade comfortably supplied. Locally, there are already rumblings of discontent coming from the Tesco distribution centre at Purfleet: Tesco distribution centre workers set to strike – October 30, 2021. These essential workers potentially have a lot of leverage should they choose to exercise it. That’s when things could start to get ‘interesting’…

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